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From a very early age we are introduced to a specific visual code, a set of signs that is fundamental to our way of life and our ability to communicate with each other.
We quickly learn to recognise the individual signs within this code – a series of abstract shapes we call letters, the building blocks of written language, that once learned, are never forgotten. Like so many things that are essential elements within our daily life, we do not often stop to consider the remarkable nature of these graphic marks and the way they function. We do not notice that they are, in effect, a sort of symbolic translation, a language of communication between receptive senses – the auditory and the visual. The existence of letters, and the written language that succeeds them, is testimony to the unique human capacity to devise codified systems that convert signals detectable through one sense into signs detectable through another. Turning sounds into visual signs. It is in this sense that letters are abstract as their visual form bears no relation to the sounds they represent – the sound of an ‘A’ has no visual form other than the constructed one we have chosen to give it.
Although we first learn these signs as individual line combinations, we also learn to recognise them as shapes, which is why we are able to look at a twisted piece of wood or a common household object and see an ‘S’ or a ‘B’. In a formal visual sense, letters are remarkably simple but like any commonly shared system of signs, there has to be a set of agreed rules governing their structure. Without these rules of course, shared recognition and understanding would be impossible and the code would not function.
Over the years experiments have been made by typographers, both playfully and academically, that test the relationship between the visual construction of letterforms and our ability to recognise them. Some of these experiments have involved eliminating different parts of letters in order to discover at what point recognition fails. A capital ‘A’ for example, consists of two diagonal lines of equal length that are connected at the top, together with a horizontal line that intersects both of these lines halfway down their height. Recognition of the capital ‘A’ for example, can survive the absence of the crossbar within the system as a whole but if the two diagonal lines do not connect at the top, the understanding is lost. Even with the crossbar present, the absence of the connecting lines immediately suggests another letter, the ‘H’. In comparison, the distance between the two vertical lines on the ‘H’ is quite flexible, it can be narrow or wide, but the removal of the crossbar destroys its recognition factor completely.
In 1991 the English designer Phil Baines created a typeface entitled Can You (Read Me), for the experimental type project Fuse, in which he showed that it is possible for modified letterforms to retain varying degrees of legibility. But because letters are already simplified marks, attempts at further simplification, making the differences between them even more subtle, make the work of distinction between them harder. The principle problem however, with reading such modified letters is our lack of familiarity with them. There is no reason why an alternative set of graphic signs could not function as letters – all we have to do is learn them. Ultimately, what experiments like Can You (Read Me) demonstrate is how good we are at accounting for missing parts, how the eye learns to fill in the gaps and how our brain connects points in space to form shapes, in the way we connect stars in the night sky.
Letters themselves though, are only a part of the system. The creation of meaning in language does not reside in the sign alone but more acutely in the arrangement of the signs and the context in which they appear. Despite the simplicity of letter forms and the very small degree of visual modification possible in their basic structure, the diversity of visual treatment to which they are subjected is truly remarkable. In our normal everyday encounters with letters we find them reproduced in hundreds, probably thousands of different ways; in two and three dimensions, static or in motion, in film titles and computer screens, in every possible colour, on paper, in wood, metal, stone, plastic, fabric, neon tube, in short, every material one can think of. They come thin and fat, angular and rounded, with and without ornaments, with stroke endings (serifs) or plain, full-bodied or in outline, in ancient script or modern digital style, as handwriting or stencil form. And all of these visual styles, materials and contexts in which they are reproduced affect the way we relate to them. They affect what meaning and significance we give to the words they spell out, to the sentiments they illicit and the responses they provoke. The same word using the same letters reproduced in different styles can change our interpretation of what is being signified.
An ordinary traffic sign such as a ‘STOP’ sign has certain characteristics that we are familiar with. The red background uses the common Western colour association with danger but the style of lettering is also significant. The ‘STOP’ sign is an instruction and the letter form, reflecting this, is in a plain, bold, strong style. Were the regulating authority (in a moment of aberration perhaps) to suddenly adopt a florid script style instead, we would be surprised not simply because it would be unfamiliar but also because we might be led to believe that the instruction had now become a polite request.
A name plate outside a building displaying the engraved words ‘B. A. Robinson D.D.S, Dental Surgeon’, supplies us with information in a way that fails to disturb our expectations. However, the exact same words hand-painted on a crude wooden board fixed to the wall would undoubtedly catch our attention, raising doubts about the professionalism we might encounter inside. If the same words were displayed in flashing neon lettering above the door, our expectations would again be challenged, albeit in a different way.
For graphic designers, this rich and diverse lexicon of styles and treatments opens up a wonderful world of opportunities. It is also proof of the collective ability to navigate and decipher extremely varied visual representations of a common sign system, and evidence that ‘the audience’ is often far more versatile in it’s reading capabilities than some design clients seem to believe. In addition to the creative visual possibilities that letter forms allow it also means that conceptually, designers can play with the meanings associated with certain letter styles and treatments, reinforcing or subverting messages. However, it’s important to recognise that the use of letters in our day to day is not confined to the institutional or the commercial (nor to the often referenced example of graffiti). Everybody uses letters, not just professional designers, and that’s where the richness and variety of their forms and contexts comes from. It’s with a touch of sadness perhaps, to notice that with the spread of personal computers, it becomes harder and harder to find the individual, hand-made, ‘vernacular’ examples of applied letters such as shop signs and street notices. Shop-keepers who may have once employed craftbased sign painters now order digitally printed signs and sellers who may have once made their own notices mostly use A4 sheets of paper printed on the domestic inkjet printer using standardised fonts (often of a ‘happy’ variety) and ‘cute’ easily available clip-art drawings and cartoons. But although the hand-made examples, with all their idiosyncrasies, may be fewer, the quantity and variety that surrounds us and their potential for expression is still enormous.
This exhibition is a celebration of that rich and plentiful diversity. The photographs displayed on the panels are the work of communication design students at the Escola Superior de Artes e Design (ESAD) resulting from an Introduction to Typography project that I initiated there as a teacher and that my colleague João Martino has since continued. The invitation that is made to the students, and that is now made here, is to look around and take stock of an extraordinary visual vocabulary in our daily lives which is both a creative tool and an invaluable contribution to our cultural heritage.
Andrew Howard / February 2007
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